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Who are you?
What is important?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

A couple of times in my life, I've been questioned about my career and title. I mention that I am a Software Engineer, but that I never got a degree -- to which some will say, "and you CALL yourself an Engineer?" This seems to be more prevalent in Canada (and some other countries) where there is some sort of test to be an engineer, but I've gotten it from other countries, and quite a few Americans as well -- to some, you aren't something unless you have a piece of paper validating that you are.

My response is usually,

"Of course I call myself an Engineer, what would you call someone with two decades of experience designing and implementing things, and who is familiar with the formal rules, and informal practical applications of those rules? I've helped Grad students with their thesis on Engineering subjects -- I've taken many classes. I just don't have the time to waste getting certification myself".

I know what is required for most classes and for many engineering ones I am ten times as informed as is required, yet none of that matters to some people. They remained unconvinced without that piece of paper. They think I am puffing up because they struck a nerve at my inabilities -- in reality I am puffing up because they did strike a nerve, but it my frustration at their inability.

Their attack just bugs me. Not because they doubted me or my abilities -- after all, they don't even know me or my abilities so why should I care? In general it doesn't matter to me (much) what other people think about me, but it does bother me how other people think, especially when that way of thinking is so dramatically wrong headed. My ego and skills are strong enough to shed their attacks and I have thrived despite them (and attitudes by many like them) -- but I've seen first hand the harm they do to others. That hurt they inflict bugs me more so because they can't think outside their narrow little definitions and don't even seem to care.


When I was teaching Martial Arts, I promoted quite a few students to Black Belt. Usually after a nice long, exhausting and difficult test (generally about 4 hours), in which we reviewed all their material, and did a lot of different things, we'd finally get to the promotion phase -- and some post promotion speeches and discussion.

At some point, I'd go through some variation of this same speech:

You are not a Black Belt because you passed this test here today. In fact, this test and all this work was for you, not for me. Think about it -- if I gave you this rank, without making you really work for it in some sort of ritualized test of your skills and endurance, you would feel cheated. It would be a big let down. Instead we do this test to satisfy our needs for demonstration -- to ourselves and others. This way you can look back and think, "Look what I accomplished", and know that most people will never accomplished this or could have handled the test (without years of training as well). This test was also so that for the rest of your lives, if you get in some difficult confrontation that you can not avoid, you can think to yourself, "This is nowhere near as bad as what has already been done to me on my Black Belt test!" [Laughter] No one can hold fear over you, since you've already suffered fatigue, bludgeoning, humiliation, and you still did not have your spirit broken. You've tempered your own spirit, magnified by your knowing that you could have walked away at any time. So the Black Belt is a symbol of your own willpower, tenacity and ego.

Of course the Black Belt itself doesn't really mean anything -- you all worked hard for a piece of meaningless cloth. You need to remind yourself about what your ego made you go though, for the sake of validation of others. The Black Belt is not a measurement of how good you are (there are many with Black Belts that are far worse in abilities and put in less effort -- and there are many that don't have Black Belts yet are far better and put in more time).. and no matter how good you are, you can still be sucker punched ("Remember though art mortal") -- so don't buy into your own hype (or the hype of the Rank). You already know that no matter how good you are, if you go looking for those that are better, you will eventually find them -- so make sure those you find are your teachers and friends, and not your enemies. Let your Black Belt be a reminder to you about your own failings (humanity) as well as a symbol of your successes. Every mistake you made going through the ranks, and every person you injured is as much a part of your Black Belt as your successes. Every time you wouldn't back down in sparring and escalated things just a little more, that was your own failing. Just putting up with this test was a demonstration of your ego and need for validation of others. Learn from those experiences and carry them with you -- but be proud of where you are and what you accomplished as well.

Black Belt is not an end -- just a new beginning. This time, as a new student (on the next level), the battle is even more with your own ego and your own self discipline. Now YOU have to keep motivating yourself to go further. You have to decide what a Black Belt means to you, and how you want to represent it -- then try to live up to it. Martial Arts (and life) is a journey towards knowledge and self improvement -- this is just a very small milestone on that path. You've all been on your way for a while, and you all have a lot more to learn -- that is life. Never, ever stop learning, and realize that the journey is the goal -- never stop traveling for long.

The reality is that you didn't earn your Black Belt today. You've earned the rank because over the past 3 to 5 years of effort you've put into Martial Arts and into improving yourself. You aren't Black Belts because of this test -- you are Black Belts because of the time and effort you've put into the art, and I can't give that, nor take that away. No art can promote you or demote you -- they can only recognize what you are. It is your accomplishment. So this cloth is just that -- just a piece of cloth. It is only meant to symbolize the years of effort you've put forth. It is cloth not the cloth that is important, but what is inside of you.

Of course the point of this speech (or some variant of it) is not to demean their accomplishments -- but to give them perspective on it. It is meant to apply to many things in their life as well.


With my particular perspective on life and learning (as demonstrated by my little promotion speech), imagine what it is like to have someone tell me that "it really is the cloth" (or piece of paper) that is important. They've got it all backwards. To those people it isn't the years (or decade) of effort that someone puts towards a goal -- what really matters to them is some other person telling them that they've achieved what they should already know that they have achieved. Reading dozens of books on a subject, discussing things with dozens of expert people, and spending years actually learning, doing, and experiencing something isn't what matters -- what matters is the politics and validation from someone else (or some organization). To me that thinking is actually kind of sick, and I feel real sad for them that they are so far off the mark.

Those same narrow minded people, that think everyone needs validation, are no better once you've gotten your certification. Then they pidgeon hole you and think that all you are is your certification. I know Ph.D.'s that can't get jobs doing anything else because they are certified only for their one field (and often a super-specialty in that field)! So they won't let them out of that niche, and won't consider them qualified for anything else. They can't get jobs in their field of expertise because they are certified to be over-qualified there, and then they are obviously a threat (because the Piece of Paper says so). They can't get a job out of their field of expertise, because their certification doesn't cover that. Infuriating.

So the next time someone asks me of "how can you call yourself that", I think I'll respond in kind. "How can you call yourself a human being (or a Man / Woman) without certification that says you are?" -- but they probably won't get it. I wouldn't be surprised if some dug out their Birth Certificates to prove it to me.

P.S. To College Students (Present and Future)

In hind sight, my life would have been easier with certification -- just to satisfy the needs of others. I certainly would not say that a lack of credentials is the easier path -- I have often had to prove myself far more than those with certification, and I've had deal with those people that could never get beyond it. So I can't recommend "going it alone" to others, and I encourage people to get the certification and validation they will need to appease the shallow. But I also encourage them to remember what is important. The Paper is not the goal -- I've known too many that have validation and still did not have a clue. The validation only means something if you achieve the real goal behind it -- the self improvement and knowledge that it is meant to represent. That focus is becoming more and more rare in our society.

I do realize that I could gone out and just bought a degree (from some paper mill)-- to appease the narrow minded. Ironically, that worthless piece of paper would hold less value (to them) than some other worthless piece of paper -- and my knowledge and experience (what that paper was meant to represent) would still be irrelevant. Yet most of them would never be able to tell the difference. But I just couldn't convince myself to stoop to their level.

Created: 12/19/98
Updated: 11/09/02

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